Q. My friend read somewhere that GPS devices are specifically stolen from cars parked at shopping centers so the owners' homes can be burglarized while they're out shopping. Is this true?
A. GPS devices are easy grab-and-go items stolen for several reasons: They are fenced for easy cash. They are personally used by directionally challenged thieves. And yes, they can assist in a home burglary.
See also: Car thieves at the impound lot.
That can happen if you store your home address on the GPS.
"Then, knowing you're at a restaurant or shopping, a home burglary can be done while no one is there," one Florida police officer told me.
Many police departments have issued warnings against leaving GPS devices inside parked cars, and against storing your address in the device and labeling it "home."
How often these burglaries actually happen isn't clear. Your friend may well have read an email that's been circulating since 2008, and like other mass-shared "urban legend" messages can't be verified. But other reports can be.
They include one (which I personally checked out) in which a Mercedes-Benz was stolen from a valet-parking station while the owner dined at a restaurant. Using the GPS device, thieves drove the car to the owner's home, where they stole a second car, a Porsche parked in the driveway.
The best advice: When you park in a public place, take a minute to detach your GPS device and wipe the windshield to remove suction cup marks that show you have one. If you're not taking the device with you, at least hide it inside the car (under a seat, for instance).
The advice can apply as well to your registration and insurance documents, which also provide an address (though not directions) for a possible burglary. And keep in mind that a garage-opening remote control can help crooks get into your home.
Also, if your GPS device has PIN protection, consider using it. Setting the device so that it won't work unless a code is entered won't prevent a theft, but it could deny crooks directions to your house.
If your PIN-capable GPS is stolen, alert the manufacturer. That way, the company will be ready if the crook calls the tech support line to try to reset the PIN.
Notify the police as well about any GPS theft, and be especially vigilant about home security afterward. Ask neighbors to watch your home for any suspicious activity while you're gone and to contact police immediately if they notice your car or any other car in your driveway at a time when they know you're away.
Also of interest: An alarm system you don't need. >>
Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.